Thomas Esparza Obituary, Death- We regret to inform you of the demise of Thomas Esparza, a cherished former president of AFGE Local 15 at Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois, a former Marine, fierce union advocate, and District 7 regional representative.
Esparza was chosen to lead Local 15 in 1995, and from that time until his retirement in 2012, he was re-elected by acclamation in each election. He was honored in 2013 by the AFL-CIO (Northwestern Illinois-Eastern Illinois branch) Hall of Fame for his dedication to workers’ rights and advocacy activities. Esparza was so adored and respected by those who knew him for a reason.
As one employee put it, Rock Island was somewhat of a twilight zone before he was elected president. They followed unwritten guidelines to operate. Most of the time, rumors were about how employees knew about changes at work. Without justification, people were fired and promoted. The atmosphere at work was unfriendly. Esparza then appeared. He became well-known for fighting fervently for his comrades. He didn’t fear management and wouldn’t think twice about making a complaint on behalf of workers if they had a valid argument.
“People waited in line to speak with Tom at the union office. Tom carefully listened to everyone and gave each individual advice as needed, according to a local police officer who nominated him for the Hall of Fame. Tom became the local president very fast. I observed changes in the workplace throughout the ensuing ten years. People started to understand their rights. Tom Esparza, a representative of the union, would defend their rights.
In the officer’s words, Esparza had “done more for the workers at Rock Island Arsenal than anyone else in the history of the island.” Esparza continued to be active in the union after his retirement, serving as a temporary national representative for District 7 and lending his knowledge, skill, and experience to neighborhood organizers there. He enjoyed educating his fellow union members about candidates and working elections.
Esparza’s recall of cases and research prowess amazed Mary DeSmet, a vice president of AFGE Local 15. He was truly a legend. Even if they didn’t know him, they were aware of his name. He was always willing to discuss topics with me, share his vast knowledge, and help me understand both sides of every situation, she stated. Working on a case and learning were both made enjoyable by working with Tom. Furthermore, Tom didn’t care at what level the other party was. He addressed generals in the same manner that he addressed troubled employees. He never gave in to pressure from management. Everyone he interacted with could see he genuinely cared.
Since 1993, Laulak Siddique had known Esparza. Siddique worked for the union that represented professionals at the time, NAGE, as its secretary before becoming its president. They both belonged to the Council for Labor-Management Partnership. Siddique once came across an anti-Arab sticker on a bookshelf while working in the Local 15 union office, not long after Operation Desert Storm. He stormed out of the office in wrath.
Esparza arrived at Siddique’s office, apologized, and clarified that the desk had been brought into the office as extra and that Local 15 had not placed the sticker there. The sticker had been pulled off since no one had spotted it. He spent at least 30 minutes at my desk. We discussed how we were both opposed to all forms of prejudice. That is when we started to get along. In terms of union representation, Tom served as my mentor, Siddique remembered. Siddique informed Esparza that he would leave his parking space after NAGE and Local 15 were combined, but Esparza not only told him to keep the place but also promoted him to senior steward. Later, Siddique was chosen as Chief Steward.